Predators elevates the franchise with suspense
The Predator franchise was slipping down the slope of ridiculousness and on it’s way to Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus territory when Robert Rodriguez was announced as the producer of a brand new enrtry to the Predator game. Thankfully, Rodriguez and director Nimród Antal brought back the suspense of the original and ditched the cheesy b-movie feel of more recent films starring everyone’s favorite dreadlocked alien.
Adrien Brody leads the cast as Royce, a tough mercenary. When we enter, he is falling through the air towards a lush rainforest. His parachute opens at just the right time and, soon after he lands, he sees other people being dropped in. Some are criminals, some are warriors, but each member of the newly-assembled group is an expert hunter in their own way. There’s Russian special forces soldier Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), Chuchillo (Rodrigues regular Danny Trejo), who is part of a Mexican drug cartel, Revolutionary soldier Mombasa from Sierra Leone (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), silent Yakuza assassin Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), and an apparently weak and feeble doctor named Edwin (Topher Grace). The romantic element comes from Royce’s interaction with IDF sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga, and the comic relief comes from death row prisoner Stans (Walton Goggins).
As they all struggle to figure out where they are and how they arrived there, they discover there’s something lurking in the jungle that’s far more bad ass than all of them combined. When the prices start to come together, they realize they’re not the hunters, but the prey and they are being targeted by the toughest predator in the jungle.
One thing I loved about the original Predator is that it didn’t really rely on big special effects for its action. The vast majority of the film is Arnold Schwarzenegger, alone in the jungle trying to outsmart an alien that has evolved into the ultimate hunter. The action comes from the suspense of knowing the Predator might be just around the corner, disguised by its transparent cloaking device. In wide shots, your eyes instantly scan the trees in the background, hoping you can spot that tell-tale shimmer of the Predator’s invisibility mode. In close-ups, you feel the tension, thinking the alien will suddenly appear when the shot pulls back out. The mystery of the unknown creature stalking and killing the toughest of the tough is the best part.
Thankfully, the new film stays true to that formula as much as possible. The initial mystery of who these people are and how they were suddenly thrust into this deadly game is like the best of Lost. Then, as they realize what’s happening, the tension builds and you anticipate who will be picked off first. Unlike the most explosion-filled action and sci-fi movies, Predators creates suspense from knowing the creature is out there and that it could strike at any minute.
The creature itself is not like the computer generated monsters in most recent action films. The Predator, designed by the late special effects superstar Stan Winston, is really just a guy in a suit. But instead of being hokey, it makes the film so much more real because everything you see isn’t just sculpted out of pixels. In addition to utilizing real, physical, practical effects, the character design lends itself to a more advanced kind of killer because you’re dealing with a humanoid monster. It can reason, plan, and adapt. It’s not just a wild animal lashing out, it’s organized and highly intelligent. That alone makes for a more interesting film than just a big bad monster trying to destroy everyone and everything.
In one of my favorite scenes, Antal uses some classic suspense shots to wind the tension just before it snaps. The group discovers a camp where the alien hunters have been housing the trophies of their various kills. Among the items there is one of the Predators tied to a large totem. Is it alive? Of course, they have to approach it to find out. Each shot brings Royce closer and closer to the dangerous alien while moving the camera in to put the audience right up close with the Predator’s face. At last, the Predator springs to life, terrifying the whole group, and making members of the audience jump in their seats. You know it’s coming, but the fun is in not knowing exactly when.
I never would have thought of Brody as an action hero, but, aside from a slight gravely Batman voice, he pulls off the role. Equal praise goes to Grace, who does a great job of being a nerdy guy with a twisted secret. He’s automatically suspicious because he’s the only one who doesn’t belong in the group of hardened killers, and the little mystery of discovering his true nature is another fun element to draw viewers in. Laurence Fishburn‘s brief appearance as a survivor who has been hiding from the Predators for many years is a nice quick excursion away from all the sneaking around through foliage.
I’m a huge fan of the first film, and even tolerated the sillier Alien vs Predator movies, but it’s nice to see that someone gave this particular monster the kind of film it deserves.